Good audiences bring a capacity for empathy to theater. “Empathy” is used for a variety of emotional responses to others, some of which are goals of the art of theater more than others. Some responses that have been called “empathy” are not compatible with understanding. Tonal sympathy is analogous to the sympathetic vibration of one violin string with another, and this is independent of understanding. Tonal sympathy, identification, and related responses tend to undermine the ability of an audience to watch carefully what is presented to them. Bertolt Brecht therefore argued for an epic model of theater that did not aim to generate empathy at all. But cognitive empathy supports the art of theater because it finds human action worth watching, and this kind of empathy requires understanding.
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